Questioning Exhaustion: Part 2

This is the second of a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “What does it mean to be exhausted at Amherst College?” The first part of the series attributed the more insidious aspects of exhaustion to the campus’ excessive disciplinary culture. This second part asks, “Can exhaustion be redeemed?”

Exhaustion is a phenomenon unlike any other. At its worst, it homogenizes individual experiences, emptying them of content. It is a feeling that prevents the afflicted from imagining anything else. It can be likened to drowning in an endless sea or sinking into bottomless quicksand. In these moments, we ask ourselves: “Am I even awake right now?” “I’m so tired, when can I go to sleep?” “Will the work ever end?”
Under extreme conditions, exhaustion forces reality to take the form of a sleepless dream in which grogginess is the norm — it is a drawing out that often replaces life and living with something else. But I wonder: can exhaustion actually keep things instead of abandoning them? Instead of subtracting, can it add?

I ask because in the first part of “Questioning Exhaustion,” which was published in the Student on Feb. 24, I explored exhaustion in relation to sleep. I think about the countless conversations that I’ve had about the imperative to achieve, to internalize and ultimately to do the most. The solutions that students pose to this problem often have to do with rest or sleep. “If we had less work, we’d have more time to sleep each night,” or so the claim goes. I just wonder why so many of us think that the solution to exhaustion is passivity instead of activity, sleep instead of awakening.

Last semester, Amherst Uprising emerged from the profound alienation, passivity and exhaustion that afflict us all on this campus. The very neurological disorders, burnout syndrome, depression, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, etc., that color the existence of many on campus became the foundational vocabulary for this movement that framed itself on inclusion and action, as opposed to division and inaction.

Amherst Uprising began with students sharing stories of exhaustion and evolved into a full-on occupation of the main site of knowledge production and discipline on campus. Until this occupation in Frost Library, I had never felt more alive and awake despite my grogginess. Students seldom slept as they should have. I, for one, was exhausted in a way that took the form of drunkenness. I felt possessed, not by my extracurricular and curricular commitments, but by the collective stories that were shared.

Drunkenness allows a quality that we do not not have access to normally — the ability to take authority of objects and images redeeming them. In the case of Amherst Uprising, the disciplinary space of the library that can often be spatially demarcated and divided by social group — first-floor Frost and Marsh House by Ultimate Frisbee players, second-floor Frost by varsity athletes, etc. — became truly inclusive, free from discipline and separation even just for a moment.
On the first day, spectators and the audience merged. The oppressors and the oppressed merged. Inclusivity was redeemed in a way that revealed the total oppression that all students faced through excessive forms of disciplinary culture permeating academics, sports or the social scene. A humanity in common was created, fueled by the stories of marginalized students who shed their tears while inviting others to join them.

When I reflect on the illuminating potential of exhaustion, I am also reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech to The New School in Feb. 1964. King noted: “But the climate, the social climate in American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land … In 1963, the Negro, who had realized for many years that he was not truly free, awoke from a stupor of inaction with the cold dash of realization that 1963 meant one hundred years after Lincoln gave his autograph to the cause of freedom.”

As King asserted in 1963, exhaustion can be a flashing up that awakes the subjugated from a deep slumber. It is a phenomenon that reverberates like a thunderclap willing all it touches awake during the middle of a storm. Here, exhaustion becomes its inverse — enthusiasm.

However, exhaustion can be something to fear when it compels us to be sleeping instead of waking up. So when confronted with trouble, sleepless nights and a future that take the form of a giant question mark, never fret. When tired, don’t ask to sleep but ask to wake up, because shouldn’t we be sick and tired of being sick and tired?